Art's Great Whodunit: The Mona Lisa Theft of 1911

  • Share
  • Read Later
Jean-Pierre Muller / AFP / Getty

The Mona Lisa

Even at the beginning of the 20th century — before mass reproductions, package tours to France and The Da Vinci CodeMona Lisa was different from other pictures. The woman with the enigmatic smile got so many love letters that her portrait was the only artwork at the Louvre to have its own mailbox. A heartbroken suitor once shot himself to death in front of her.

So is it any surprise that somebody finally eloped with her? On the morning of Aug. 21, 1911, Mona Lisa — arguably the world's most famous picture — was stolen from the Louvre. Who took her, how and why, is all part of the story told in two new books this spring. Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa by R.A. Scotti (Knopf; 239 pages) sticks closely to the case and relates it luxuriously. In places it reads like a prose poem with narrative gallop. The Crimes of Paris: A True Story of Murder, Theft, and Detection by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler (Little, Brown; 376 pages) embeds the theft within more workmanlike prose and the larger story of how Paris police were struggling in the early 20th century against a world of gangsters and anarchists. Unfortunately, the authors of both books have decided to pad out their texts by resurrecting an utterly unsubstantiated version of who might have been behind the heist. (The Mona Lisa mystery: Pregnant? Disgusted?)

What we know is this: In the early morning hours of a Monday morning, before the Louvre was opened for visitors, Mona Lisa was stolen by a thief who acted quickly when no guards were around. The theft didn't even come to light until the next day. (Guards who noticed that the painting was missing assumed it had been removed to be photographed.) Once museum officials realized the truth, the Louvre was shut down. Police arrived to question the staff, re-enact the crime and dust for fingerprints, a new crime-fighting technique in those days. The French border was sealed and departing ships and trains searched. By the time the museum re-opened nine days later, the theft was front-page news around the world. Tips were pouring in from amateur detectives, nutty professors and clairvoyants. Thousands of people lined up at the Louvre just to see the empty spot where the painting once hung. Among them was Franz Kafka, who was visiting Paris and whose cameo in this story, of course, makes it all the more Kafkaesque.

See the world's most influential people in the 2009 TIME 100.

A little more than a week after the robbery, the plot thickened considerably when a mysterious character got in touch with Paris-Journal, a newspaper that was offering a reward for information about the crime. Soon the man showed up at the newspaper's offices with a small statue, one of several that he claimed to have stolen four years earlier from the Louvre. The anonymous thief turned out to be a bisexual con man named Honoré Joseph Géry Pieret. He had once served as "secretary," and perhaps other roles, for Guillaume Apollinaire, the poet and art-world polemicist who was Picasso's constant supporter in the public skirmishes over modern art in the French press. Before long, Pieret had implicated Apollinaire in the thefts. When police arrested Apollinaire, he admitted under pressure that Pieret had sold the pilfered works to none other than Picasso. Thinking they had found their way into a crime ring that might be behind the Mona Lisa case, the cops then dragged Picasso before a magistrate for questioning.

Picasso, who at 29 had just begun the transition from bohemia to the haute bourgeoisie, was terrified. He was a foreigner in France; any serious trouble with the law could get him deported. And this could have gotten serious, because the accusation was true. Four years earlier, he had bought from Pieret two of the pilfered sculptures, Roman-era Iberian heads whose thick features and wide eyes he would introduce into the great painting he was then just about to embark upon, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Though he would deny it in court, he almost certainly knew at the time that both heads were lifted from the Louvre. He may even have pushed Pieret to take them in the first place. But prosecutors couldn't build a case that either Picasso or Apollinaire had stolen the heads, much less the Mona Lisa, and both of them went free.

After that, for years the trail went cold. Mona Lisa was reported to have been shipped to Switzerland or South America. She was in an apartment in the Bronx, a private gallery in St. Petersburg or a secret room in the mansion of J.P. Morgan. In fact, she had never left Paris. The thief turned out to be Vincenzo Peruggia — the Hooblers spell it Perugia — an Italian house painter and carpenter living in France, though he was arrested for the crime — in December 1913 — in Florence. He had gone there with the painting after contacting a Florentine art dealer, Alfredo Geri, who he hoped would help him dispose of his hostage in a way that would bring him some cash. Geri played along, and even brought in the director of the Uffizi Gallery to authenticate the picture on the spot. When they were satisfied that Peruggia had brought them the real thing, they turned him over to the police.

The whole episode proved embarrassing for France. Peruggia had escaped the dragnet of French police, despite the fact that he had once worked at the Louvre, knew the exits and escape routes and had even helped build the glass-enclosed frame Mona Lisa was displayed in — so on the fateful morning he knew how to get her out of it quickly. Then he spirited her back to his shabby apartment and flung her like Patty Hearst into a dark closet, which is where she remained for more than two years.

Though there's evidence that Peruggia tried repeatedly to sell the picture, he always insisted that his only motive in stealing Mona Lisa was to return it in glory to Italy and to exact revenge for Napoleon's massive theft of artworks all across Europe. One problem: Mona Lisa had never been part of the Napoleonic plunder. Though Leonardo had begun the painting in Florence in 1503, he took it with him to France 13 years later when he resettled at the court of the French king François I. After his death there in 1519, the painting passed through several hands until an eager François bought it for the modern equivalent of around $10 million.

Peruggia's patriotic rationale made him a hero in the Italian press, but it didn't persuade an Italian jury, which convicted him in August 1914. His sentence was reduced to time served. Eventually he moved back to France and opened a paint store in Haute-Savoie. Mona Lisa meanwhile was permitted by France to go on a triumphal tour of Italy before she returned home.

Though no one doubts that it was Peruggia who actually stole the painting, to this day there are questions as to whether he had help that night or if he was working for bigger operators. This is where both books dive headfirst into a huge pile of baloney. In 1932 a swashbuckling American journalist named Karl Decker published a piece in the Saturday Evening Post, in which he wrote that in 1914 in Morocco, he met an aristocratic con man, Marqués Eduardo de Valfierno, who told him that he had masterminded the theft as part of a scheme to sell six meticulously forged versions of Mona Lisa to six gullible millionaires. Each would be duped into believing he had secretly bought the picture that had just been famously stolen from the Louvre. But in order to carry out the scam, it was necessary to pull off a highly publicized theft of the real picture. De Valfierno claimed that the scheme netted him millions, and that Peruggia has been well paid for his part, but had kept the original, thinking he could sell that too.

All of this is fun to imagine, but garbage. Almost a century after the crime, none of the six alleged copies has turned up. Did de Valfierno even exist, or was he a fiction created by Decker in his declining years to sell a magazine story? Who knows, but all these years later, authors with a book to market still play footsie with Decker's wholly unsubstantiated story. The Hooblers retell the Decker tale in their last chapter, then lamely attach a disclaimer: "There is no external confirmation for it. Yet it has frequently been assumed to be true by authors writing about the case." But naturally when their book was excerpted in Vanity Fair this month, it was the Decker story that occupied most of the excerpt, with the Hooblers' shrugging disclaimer tacked at the end. No matter, within days a blog on the Boston Herald website was reporting that the Hoobler's book "reveals" that de Valfierno commissioned the theft.

What Scotti does with the story is no better. She opens Vanished Smile with the Marqués arriving in the U.S. to peddle his forgeries, a gimmick that will lead unsuspecting readers to suppose that this imaginary character will somehow turn out to be the real man behind the crime. But the Marqués disappears from her book until the final chapter, where Scotti lays out Decker's account and then details the reasons why it's probably hooey.

Scotti is right about one thing. The huge publicity surrounding the theft helped to launch Leonardo's great painting into the stratosphere of fame. "Mona Lisa left the Louvre a work of art," Scotti writes. "She returned an icon." Truer to say she returned a pop-culture celebrity, the kind who's helpless to stop the world from spreading loose talk about her. That's a temptation neither of these books was able to resist.

Google Earth Takes On the Prado's Masterworks

See TIME's photos: Cezanne and Beyond